“How can we improve parental engagement during this pandemic?”

A few weeks ago I was invited to work with a nursery school leadership team for a strategic planning workshop. Known for excellent parental engagement, the school had been struggling to engage some families since the COVID-19 crisis. This was partly because absence from nursery had increased due to family anxiety and ill health. Parents were not allowed on site due to social distancing arrangements. The SENCo was particularly concerned for families who had children with complex needs, including those with challenging behaviours and family stress.

During a workshop, I introduced the model of neurological levels of learning. This model comes from Robert Dilts, a leading figure in the field of Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP). He recognised that it is important for team leaders to operate at multiple levels to achieve change. As Albert Einstein quoted:

“You can never solve a problem with the same kind of thinking that created the problem in the first place.”

The six W questions are integral to the model, to allow people to ask themselves questions in different ways:

Where? When? What? Why? How? Who?

The 6 w's

A seventh W question could be ‘For whom?’ to determine the greater purpose/mission.

I invited the team to consider their parental engagement issue through this model. The question asked was “How can we improve parental engagement during this pandemic?” The leaders recognised they had done lots of work at the ‘environment’ level, making the school as safe as they could. They had also informed parents of the new safety guidance through a range of communications (behaviour level). However, as they attributed their question further up the pyramid, they raised some deeper, reflective questions for themselves (in bold).

Once they got to the top I asked them to go back down the order of the pyramid to gather further reflections. The discussion continued in earnest as they raised lots of questions and assumptions about their practice:

These are some of the challenges the team identified:

1. Purpose

Although our vision statement is visible in every room, we cannot remember it, so it is unlikely our stakeholders will!

2. Identity

The nursery has been a consistent resource over the past 50 years, yet so much has changed in the local community that our newer families may not know who we are.

3. Beliefs and values

The internal beliefs and values of the school are clear from the school perspective – that education is important and children are expected to attend every day. Do our families feel the same way, or might we just be a childcare service that allows the families to work. Or is there an image that we are a place where the most vulnerable children attend? Or both?

4. Skills and capabilities

We have a strong reputation for supporting families with complex social and educational needs. But how do we get the buy-in from families who won’t or don’t come or disappear as soon as there is an issue, with the COVID-19 crisis being a current and far reaching one?

As a result, the team came up with some reflective points to action. They produced 5 top tips:

  1. Early years settings can never be still. Constant challenge to your own practice is an effective tool to make your practice flexible and move with the times.
  2. Parental engagement often follows the 80/20 rule – 80% of families who engage take up 20% of your time, and 20% of your families take up 80% of your time. It is usually the same 20% of children and families who you struggle to make a difference with, and you can invest in an individualised approach with each of them. 
  3. Families with children with disabilities or special needs can be particularly sensitive during the current climate – find out what they need to trust that their child will be safe in your nursery.
  4. Each family has its own set of beliefs and values and these may not quite match with yours or your schools. Parents always want the best for their child, so how can you help them get this? Do their expectations align with those of your setting?
  5. Only send necessary communications and keep them simple. Gather perspectives on how your communications are received by engaged families from a range of backgrounds – multi-cultural and socio-economic, established and new to area.

If you would like to try this model to create change in your school, remember the six Ws (+1, What?):

Where/when will you meet? (environment/ time) What will you focus on? (behaviours)

Why will you do it? (capabilities/skills)

How might you make it happen? (beliefs/values)

Who will make it happen? (identify)

For whom are you doing it? (purpose/vision/mission)


• Diagram from NLPschool.com
• Dilts, R. (2003) From Coach to Awakener (Appendix A ) Dilts Strategy Group

About the author:

Ruth Mercer is a coach and consultant, with a career background in early education. Ruth is committed to creating a positive learning environment for staff, children and families. She has a successful track record of 1:1 coaching for leaders and group coaching across the maintained and PVI sector. She supports leaders and managers in developing a coaching approach in their settings through bespoke consultancy and introductory training on coaching and mentoring for all staff.

Virtual course forthcoming: Onwards and Upwards - Becoming an Effective Leader in the EYFS (6 half-day sessions over 6 months). Suitable for EYFS leads in school, nursery school teachers and reception teachers. Please email for further details, to book a space or request a bespoke option for your school/setting.

Contact: ruthmercercoaching@gmail.com

Website: www.ruthmercercoaching.com

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